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Paleobotanist digs ancient burned plants

September 24, 2009

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Unearthing charred botanical remains at a Middle Eastern archaeological dig this summer in 35–40C weather isn’t everyone’s idea of a great vacation.

But for second-year archaeology master’s student, Molly Capper, it was a labour of love—and her fourth summer spent seeking out ancient plant remains on a dig in southern Turkey.

The budding paleobotanist was among more than 30 students, archaeologists and specialists from North America and Europe working at a 3,000-year-old temple excavation when they discovered a rare cache of cuneiform tablets dating back to the Iron Age (600–1200 BC).

The find is significant because the tablets may shed more light on this largely undocumented period of ancient history.

The other areas under excavation also offer an extraordinary opportunity to examine the period’s agriculture, says Capper, since fire preserves plant matter, which can be floated in water and recovered.

This year, Capper was excited to find the burned seeds of pit fruits among her samples because, she explains, "un-charred seeds won’t preserve in the ground beyond 100 to 200 years unless they’re in an extremely arid or waterlogged environment."

The thrill in finding ancient plant remains is the opportunity "to touch the everyday life of whoever’s remains we happen to be excavating," she says. "To see what their diet consisted of and what their kitchen would have been like. For me it really humanizes the past."

As for Capper’s own housing "digs" this year, she and the crew stayed in a nearby boarding school’s dormitories where, she says, "we lived really well."

Capper will spend the fall semester identifying and cataloguing her discoveries in preparation for writing her MA thesis.

For more about the dig visit www.utoronto.ca/tap.

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